Amazon Fire TV Stick (2019) review: Cheap TV streamer best for heavy Amazon Prime, Alexa users
If you're looking for a cheap, easy way to get streaming video from Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, YouTube and so on to your TV, you have two excellent choices: Roku and Amazon Fire TV.
Roku has long been my choice over Fire TV because, well, Amazon's menus are annoying. Using a Fire TV stick means wading through a bunch of TV shows and movies, not necessarily the apps themselves. That would be fine if they were the TV shows and movies I'm in the middle of watching, or might actually want to watch -- something Netflix's menus do very well. But more often than not, I don't care about the TV shows and movies on Fire TV's screen. They just seem like stuff Amazon or its partners want me to watch.
Given the choice between using this $40 (£30, AU$69) Fire TV Stick every day and its direct competitor from Roku, the $50 Roku Streaming Stick, I'm sticking with Roku. Even though it came out in 2017. Even with Amazon's Fire TV discounts, which frequently bring its stick down to $30 or even less. Even though I use Alexa and Amazon Prime video all the time.
But what about you? Maybe you want to save that money. Or maybe you want the Amazon special sauce: Alexa. If you own an Alexa speaker like an Echo Dot and want to use it to control your TV by talking, hands-free, the cheapest option is to get a Fire TV Stick. And it works great. Yes, Roku's devices work with Google Home speakers now, but it's not as good.
Otherwise those two streamers are really similar. Both have access to approximately umpteen zillion apps. Both have remotes with TV volume and power buttons to control most TVs so you can ditch the remote that came with your TV. And both have 4K-compatible big brothers that are better choices if you have a 4K TV -- and in true Amazon fashion, the 4K version of this stick is just another ten bucks.
What's in a stick?
If you're unfamiliar with this kind of device, here's a quick rundown.
- It's a tiny stick that plugs into the HDMI port on the back of your TV, out of sight. Amazon includes a mini cable in the box if space is tight back there.
- For power you can plug it into a USB port on your TV, but we (and Amazon) recommend plugging it directly into a power outlet via the included adapter.
- It requires a solid Wi-Fi connection to stream TV shows and movies.
- It can access almost all of the major streaming apps, including Amazon Prime Video (of course), Netflix, Hulu, HBO Now/Go, Sling TV, Sony Crackle, Pluto TV, Tubi TV, Amazon Music, Pandora, Spotify and many, many more. (Available services differ by country, obviously.)
- It also supports YouTube. There's no official app, but the interface on the browser version looks and behaves basically the same as an app. It doesn't support voice commands though.
- It doesn't support YouTube TV, however, one of our favorite live TV streaming services, nor does it support Vudu or Google Play Movies and TV, two major sources of recent movies to buy or rent (that compete directly against Amazon video itself). Otherwise its app selection is basically as good as Roku's.
Universal remote (lite)
Amazon's official product name -- "Fire TV Stick with all-new Alexa Voice Remote, streaming media player" -- spells it out pretty clearly: the only difference between the 2019 version of this product and the earlier one, which came out two years ago, is the remote. The streaming sticks themselves are exactly the same.
The new remote has additional buttons, namely a volume up-down rocker, a mute button and a little power button at the top. They can control your TV, and they worked great in my tests.
On the TVs I tried from LG, Samsung, Sony and Vizio the Fire TV detected my TV type and programmed the remote automatically, in seconds. All I had to do was confirm it worked. If detection doesn't work for some reason the setup menus made it easy to correct the issue and program the clicker without having to enter any codes or other nonsense typically associated with universal remotes.
In addition to Mute, a button Roku's clickers lack, the Fire TV goes one better with more control options. If you have a sound bar, you can set up the remote's volume and mute keys to control it instead (the remote's power button can control both the TV and the bar). It worked well with sound bars I tried from Vizio, Sonos and Yamaha. The same scheme works with AV receivers too -- my Sony receiver responded to volume, mute and power from the Fire TV remote in my tests.
If for some odd reason you prefer to speak into the remote rather than press a button, know that when I said "turn up the volume" and "mute" into the Fire TV remote it worked as expected, controlling my receiver, sound bar and TV. It didn't work for power, however. There's also no way to control devices via voice hands-free -- via a paired Echo Dot, for example -- for that you'll need a Fire TV Cube.
Stream with your voice
You can talk into the remote after pressing a button, and stuff happens. Normal TV stuff such as, "Launch Netflix," "Show me sci-fi movies," "Play Black Mirror" (which launches the Netflix app and starts an episode), and "Skip ahead 30 minutes" worked as I expected. Many popular apps, including Hulu, HBO Now and Movies Anywhere, support voice commands. YouTube doesn't, however.
The Fire TV also works with Alexa speakers for the same voice commands, hands-free. Using a paired Echo Dot I said, "Alexa, launch Hulu," "Alexa, play Handmaid's Tale," "Alexa, play Westworld," "Alexa, go Home," "Alexa, pause," and they worked as expected. I also appreciated not having to use cumbersome phrasing like adding "...on Fire TV" to the end of most commands.
As usual there were some hiccups: "Alexa, play True Detective" started playing the soundtrack on Spotify, not the series on HBO Now, for example. It's also worth mentioning that the Stick can't control your TV's power, volume or inputs hands-free via an Alexa speaker. For that you'll need a Fire TV Edition television. Here's Amazon's list of voice controls.
Placement can also be an issue. When I put my Echo right next to the sound bar, it had trouble hearing the "Alexa" wake word. You can get around the issue by muting the sound bar -- or getting a Fire TV Cube, which performed much better in close proximity to the TV in my tests -- but the easiest solution is to move your Alexa speaker elsewhere in the room: closer to you and further from the speakers, so it can hear you better.
For comparison I also tested a Roku Streaming Stick connected to a Google Home. It worked, but not as well as the Fire TV connected to an Echo Dot. First off, Netflix isn't supported at all. Also, for every command I had to append the standard "on Roku" command to the end, as in "OK Google, launch Hulu on Roku" instead of just "OK Google, launch Hulu." And none of the apps I tried supported the "skip ahead [time]" command. I was able to search, launch apps and control playback (play, pause, fast-forward) on many apps, but overall I definitely preferred Fire TV and Alexa for hands-free voice.
Beyond voice, however, Roku still beats Fire TV. Swapping back and forth between Roku's stick and Amazon's, I really appreciated the clean, simple design of Roku. It surfaces just the apps I want and lets me arrange them however I please, in a way that lets me get inside the app to the shows I want as quickly as possible.
In comparison Fire TV's menus are busy, cluttered and crammed with ads. Getting to the most recently used apps is easy here too, thanks to the top "Recent" line, and the next one down, "Your apps and channels," lets you move apps around.
But the remainder of the screen, including the main top section, is used to promote various shows, many from Amazon's Prime library, that I had little interest in watching. There's a big "sponsored" ad immediately below the first two rows that always seemed to advertise Amazon stuff, and the majority of the rows that are revealed as you scroll down are devoted to Amazon stuff. The rows of thumbnails is very similar to Netflix but with more chaff, and the overall effect makes me feel force-fed on the big A.
Going back to Roku's simplicity, even with its single big ad, was a relief. Roku's search results are also more agnostic, putting TV shows and movies from various apps side by side and sorted by price, including "free" if you subscribe.
Speaking of free, Roku also beats Fire TV at prominently featuring stuff you can stream without paying a dime, as long as you don't mind ads -- namely The Roku Channel and Featured Free. Amazon's answer is IMDb Freedive, an app that offers up "thousands of" TV shows and movies from IMDb Freedive, Sony Crackle, TubiTV, Pluto TV and other services -- for free, with ads. IMDb is a wholly owned subsidiary of Amazon, and its Freedive service is also available on computer.
While Freedive lacks The Roku Channel's live news feeds, both have similar TV shows and movies. Check out my quick survey of the first few that appear on each service, taken Jan. 14, for an idea of how they compare.
Where there's Smoku, there's Fire TV
As the cheapest streaming stick with built-in TV control, and the one that works best with the most popular voice platform (Alexa), the Fire TV stick is a very good choice for a lot of people. Add to that Amazon's frequent sales and shameless marketing -- when I search Amazon.com for "roku streaming stick" the first results are all Amazon Fire TV devices -- and it's not hard to see why Fire TV finally passed Roku in active users. Roku, with its neutral approach and level playing field for all apps, makes it the winner in my book, however.